Churches are religious bodies in a relatively low state of tension with their environments.

Sects are religious bodies in a relatively high state of tension with their environments.

The sect-church process concerns the fact that new religious bodies nearly always begin as sects and that, if they are successful in attracting a substantial following, they will, over time, almost inevitably be gradually transformed into churches. That is, successful religious movements nearly always shift their emphasis toward this world and away from the next, moving from high tension with the environment toward increasingly lower levels of tension. As this occurs, a religious body will become increasingly less able to satisfy members who desire a high-tension version of faith. As discontent grows, these people will begin to complain that the group is abandoning its original positions and practices, as indeed it has. At some point this growing conflict within the group will erupt in a split, and the faction desiring a return to higher tension will leave to found a new sect. If this movement proves successful, over time it too will be transformed into a church and once again a split will occur. The result is an endless cycle of sect formation, transformation, schism, and rebirth. The many workings of this cycle account for the countless varities of each of the major faiths (Finke and Stark, 1992:44-45).


a.) Finke, R. and R. Stark. 1992. The Churching of America: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
b.) Iannaccone, L. R. 1988. "A formal model of church and sect." American Journal of Sociology 94:s241-68.
c.) Montgomery, J. D. 1996. "The dynamics of the religious economy: exit, voice, and denominational secularization." Rationality and Society 8:81-110.
d.) Stark, R. and W. S. Bainbridge. 1985. The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival, and Cult Formation. Berkeley: University of California Press.
e.) Stark, R. and W. S. Bainbridge. 1987. A Theory of Religion. Toronto: Peter Lang.

    Related Concepts  
The following Concepts can potentially capture some of the ideas of this theory.

A conventional religious organization, such as a mainstream denomination.

A church can be recognized by the fact that respondents who are members exhibit distributions of religious beliefs and practices that are comparable to those of the population as a whole.


A deviant religious organization with novel or exotic religious beliefs and practices.

Members will have religious beliefs and practices that do not belong to the dominant religious tradition.

One can often distinguish a cult from an immigrant ethnic religion by looking at variables such as parents' birthplace.


The organizational form that dominant religious traditions assume in a pluralistic culture (Christiano et al., 2002:101). Denominationalism refers to the subdivision of a particular religion. A common example is Protestant Christianity in the United States. While each denomination ascribes to what are considered foundational tenets of the Christian faith, they maintain separate identities due to differences in what are considered peripheral issues. However, some denominations might consider that others have actually left the "true" Christian faith.

A central method for measuring denominationalism is RELTRAD. Steensland et al. proposed this typology in 2000 and it is currently the most widely accepted way of accounting for differences in religious tradition. Included within the typology are Evangelical, Mainline, and Black Protestants. These could be used to approximate differences believed to be due to denominationalism.


Marked by holding to the authority of Scripture, the veracity of biblical miracles, salvation through Christ alone and encouraging a separation from "the world" (Woodberry and Smith, 1998:28). Fundamentalism is widely regarded as a reaction to the modernist and liberal strain of Protestantism that arose at the turn of the 20th century. Fundamentalism tends to favor a premillenialist dispensationalism believing that the world will grow worse and worse, despite any human intervention, until Jesus Christ's return to earth. Thus, fundamentalists believe in maintaining a strict separation from the world and do not encourage a social gospel, usually attributed to more liberal Protestant groups.

Common ways of measuring fundamentalism is by using RELTRAD and accounting for a person's religious tradition. Fundamentalists are most likely found in the Evangelical Protestant or Black Protestant traditions. Fundamentalists are also very likely to ascribe a literal and perfect view of the Bible. Due to the premillenialist views of fundamentalists researchers could use a belief in certain "End Times" prophecies to designate those in this strain of Christianity. A belief in Jesus and Jesus being the only way to salvation are also markers that can be used to measure fundamentalism.


Adhering to the traditional religious faith of the particular society or coherent subgroup.

A Christian orthodoxy index can be found in Stark and Glock 1968.

Relative Deprivation

A situation in which one person lacks what others have, especially if this leads to frustration and a sense of injustice.

This is a classic explanation for the church-sect dimensions, suggesting that sects compensate people psychologically for relative deprivation.

See The Sociology of Religious Movements by William Sims Bainbridge (1997:85, 111).


Level of religious commitment. This is usually measured through self-report of various measures. Asking individuals how they view the Bible, whether it is authoritative and perfect, or full of myths, allows researchers to approximate how religious one views herself. The frequency of attendance at church also provides a measure of the level of a person's religious commitment. Researchers also take how much money a person gives to their place of worship as a measure of religiosity.


A deviant religious organization with conventional beliefs and practices.

A sect can be recognized by the fact that the beliefs and practices of members are within the same tradition as the majority of respondents, but more intense, pure, and consistent.

Sectarian Tension

The relationship between a sectarian movement and the wider culture, marked by difference, antagonism, and separation.

Items measuring the three dimensions can be found in Bainbridge and Stark (1980).

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